My wife says when she was a kid her farmer brother-in-law Ronnie Aulner used to pay her and her brothers and sisters far more than the going rate for “picking rocks” from his fields and other tedious agricultural tasks.
That impressed me, because it’s easy to get away with underpaying kids in general and especially kin kids whose parents might easily expect them to do it for nothing.
But that was the kind of guy he was. Principled, even when nobody was, so to speak, looking. A rare virtue in America today, where even truth is apparently flexible and of little value, from our president on down.
So, when Ronnie abruptly and totally unexpectedly passed away earlier this month at 70, South Dakota, indeed all of us, suddenly became poorer in the things that achingly matter. (Read his obituary here.)
Thus, my life became poorer, too. Ronnie was a good friend, of which I have precious few (by choice), which makes my friends all the more precious.
The reason I was proud to call him a friend is simply because he was a genuinely kind and respectful person, even usually to people who were sometimes not kind and respectful toward him. Although, due to his unflagging cornball humor and generally optimistic outlook — which was also slightly fatalistic, as farmers tend to be — his antagonists seemed so few and far between as to be almost nonexistent.
Since little was publicly said about Ronnie’s life at his wake and funeral service, I feel compelled to say something now. Before he passed, I had known and spent countless hours with him over more than 30 years, and so I can unequivocally confirm that his was a life well spent, largely in service to his family, assorted others and his community.
Ronnie was an authentic but not dogmatic Christian, a Catholic, living his faith with kindly forbearance of others, who, like me — a committed nonbeliever — might have vastly different views. He seemed to instinctively understand that we’re all searching for the same answers, just in different ways, and that there’s no need to publicly quibble about what is essentially a private quest. I’m sure he believed, in the meantime, that we should all treat everyone with decency.
A practical man
As a transplanted city-slicker from Arizona who married Ronnie’s sister-in-law, I must admit that I am in awe of farmers’ astonishing ability to fix anything broken or solve any practical problem on the fly. I cannot count the times Ronnie showed up to fix and solve things that proved beyond my limited practical skills. And he did it with an easy smile and jokey asides, actually seeming to enjoy himself.
He was forever pulling people out of ditches after they got stuck in snow or mud. He drove people here and there to appointments they were unable to get to themselves. He helped babysit grand- and great-grandkids, who all loved him to pieces, even if he did sometimes (well, most times) taunt them with the “Crybaby” song and pretend to bawl himself whenever they shed self-indulgent tears.
Speaking of tears, I suspect they may also be being shed on his local township board, of which he was its longtime treasurer. Nobody ever wanted that difficult, thankless job. Nobody still doesn’t.
The go-to guy
Ronnie Aulner was always the go-to guy who got the job done, put the necessary effort forward, whether it was repairing his mother-in-law’s furnace in the dead of winter or replacing her bathroom toilet, or chasing down a cow with a prolapsed uterus at his old farm now run by his son. Or whatever.
When he was a young, struggling farmer, living with his wife, Kate, in a drafty, unplumbed farm house on nearby Highway 25, he on occasion let strangers stay the night whose cars crapped out, who got halted by blizzards, or who ran out of gas and money simultaneously. He gave one of them money for gas and a tow to a Cenex station, and he gave another a beater pickup to get to where he was going (and the grateful fellow actually returned a year or so later to return the vehicle).
Ronnie’s was the kind of essential life that happens invisibly, under the radar of the rest of American life relentlessly going on elsewhere. He was never on the cover of Time magazine or Rolling Stone, or even South Dakota magazine, although his picture did from time to time appear in the pages of his slender local weekly newspaper, The Alexandria Herald.
But he was undeniably a man of impressive substance. Everyone who knew him, I could see, liked and respected him and could not not smile in his presence. Ronnie had the invaluable virtues — priceless, really — of being courteous, honest as the day is long, reliable as sunrise, and compelled by a true sense of duty to others. Sure, sometimes he complained about the menial injustice of things he felt obligated to do, but he never, ever didn’t do them.
He had my back
Also, in subtle ways, he had my back. When I was still (slowly) learning to play Pinnochle, the game my in-laws constantly played, the process was, shall we say, tortuous for me (and probably worse for others). But sometimes when Ronnie was my partner, despite my rookie mistakes, we actually won a set.
When other players might point out mistakes I had made, Ronnie, without looking up, would just say, “Well, he’s winning, isn’t he?”
And that’s how I’ve always felt — and continue to feel — about even too temporarily having this good-natured, intellectually curious, self-contained farmer for a friend.
I felt, somehow, like I had won something invaluable totally by accident.